One of the great challenges for any historic site or historian is "how do we make this relevant?" In my previous career as a high school history teacher, my students used to ask, "Why do I need to know this?" The cliché answers about learning from the past never seemed to cut it. How is history relevant?
A week ago, as you've no doubt heard, Dylann Roof, a twenty one year old self-avowed white supremacist walked into a historic African American church in Charleston and murdered nine people. At first, the national conversation was about guns. President Obama's initial statement on the attack emphasized how easy it is for people to get guns and the frequency of mass violence in this nation. Then the conversation shifted to Roof's motive. Was this an incident of mental health? Typically with these mass shootings people make the case that the real issue isn't guns, but mental health. But in this case, evidence began to emerge that this was a well planned out attack motivated by race and intended to instill terror in the black community. From there the topic shifted to race - why is it that when people of color go on politically motivated rampages it's thuggery or terrorism, but when a white kid does it it's a mental health issue?
|The Confederate flag flies at full staff (Wall St. Journal photo)|
As the city of Charleston began to mourn, Governor Nikki Haley ordered state and national flags in South Carolina lowered to half staff - all except one. By state law, the Confederate flag that flies on the state house grounds cannot be raised or lowered without the approval of 2/3 of the legislature. So we have a situation where flags are symbolically at half staff in mourning for the victims of racial violence, but the most racially charged symbol in the city remained proudly waving at full staff. From there, the internet exploded and calls to take down Confederate flags and symbols reached a fever pitch. In less than a week the national debate shifted from gun control to mental health to race to the Confederate flag. Politicians started coming out in support of taking down the Confederate flag - even Strom Thurmond's son spoke out. Major retailers announced that they'd no longer carry Confederate flags for sale. The governor of Alabama even ordered the flags removed from the state house there. They've come a long way since George Wallace.
Seemingly everybody has an opinion on what's going on. Many see this as an assault on their southern heritage or the relentless assault of the PC police. Still others view this as a long awaited victory and a small time towards racial justice and equality. People debate, with varying degrees of understanding, the role of race and slavery in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The things we talk about everyday in our sites - slavery, states rights, motives of Union and Confederate soldiers - are suddenly all over Facebook, Twitter, social media, dinner table conversations. You could say that the Civil War has gone "viral." One of my Facebook friends, irritated with the fevered debates posted, "I didn't realize so many of my facebook friends had attended college and studied History, specializing in Nineteenth Century American History and Reconstruction in the post-war south... So for those of you who have, speak on, for the rest of you, isn't Maury on?" I jokingly chimed in on his post, "Hey, I did!"
And that brings me back to where I started - relevancy. (Relevancy; noun: relevant